I’ve finally checked out Lou Lou, Loutallica, or whatever you want to call it (actual title: ‘Lulu’)- the ‘stranger than fiction’ collaboration between Metallica and Lou Reed. I’ve been hearing what everyone’s been saying about the album- they don’t like it.
Myself? With the exception of a few parts (the riff on track 2, ‘The View,’ for example), upon first listen, I don’t really like it either. But I confess to being fascinated by it.
Now before we go any further, let me just say how much respect I have for the members of Metallica, despite not always agreeing with every group decision. My public comments on the band do not always go over well with their fans, who tend to only see me as a guy from another metal band. But I’m honestly trying to speak purely as a listener and observer, so pretend I’m a journalist for one moment.
Here is one way to view ‘Lulu:’ as an experiment in ‘phenomenology’ much like the Andre The Giant sticker campaign by artist Shepard Fairey. It leaves you asking questions like What is it? Is it cool? Are we just not getting it? Who knows? Either way, it’s got everyone talking and challenging their thinking.
Another way to view Lulu is the type of album that very few musical acts get to do- the 1% or less who reach that highest level, commercially and financially. These albums can only be done by acts who maintain their own creative control and feel the artistic impulses to challenge the very system that put them where they are. With Metallica’s legacy secured, you can say they’ve earned the right to have a little fun and prove that they can do whatever the fuck they want to, as long as it’s done strategically (very wise that an ‘official’ Metallica album is planned, soon to follow).
And now I’ll speak as a fellow musician: As part of the other 99% – far from wealthy, but grateful to have carved out a comfortable living based solely on playing and composing- I honestly don’t know what it’s like to be in that kind of top tier position. I can only imagine the artistic inclinations I might feel if I were. So it feels only fair to withhold judgement as a musician and place ‘Lulu’ in a proper historical context, with other iconic artists who have thrown their fans for a loop (in some cases, quite literally, as you’ll see).
In 1968, John Lennon, still a Beatle and arguably the most towering figure in popular music and culture, collaborated with avant-garde conceptual artist Yoko Ono (his future wife) to release ‘Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins.‘ The album was unlike any other by a rock artist at the time: it consisted of tape loops, instrumental noises, random conversation and other indecipherable sounds, almost tribal in nature, with no song structure, chords or melody; a pure sonic collage. The album’s shock value was enhanced by its cover art, which included full frontal photos of John and Yoko, stark naked.
In the mid-70’s, a similarly defiant recording- Lou Reed’s own feedback fest, a loop layered, distorted enhanced by various tape speeds, brought to mind a traffic jam on mars. It was entitled “Metal Machine Music.” This album cost Reed, the leader of the hugely successful Velvet Underground, many fans and much of his credibility. Decades later, ‘Metal Machine Music’ would be considered groundbreaking and influential, especially among more ambient, noise influenced musicians such as Sonic Youth and Nine Inch Nails .
One of the most influential, respected and commercially successful jazz guitarists of our time (and a personal hero of mine), Pat Metheny, did his own aggressive, loop-driven ‘noise’ album in the mid- 90’s, one which critics have demolished and fans have begged him to disown: ‘Zero Tolerance For Silence.’ In fairness, this album is not without its share of discernible melodies, but they are far from what fans had come to know from Pat Metheny’s albums- flawlessly executed and polished- it sounds more like something you’d expect from Keith Richards on acid.
Before all of that, a similar statement had been made in the classical world, using the complete opposite approach. It was famously created by composer/pianist John Cage (a frequent collaborator of Yoko Ono’s), who released “4:33,” a ‘piece’ which consists of nothing but four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. That’s right- a musical composition that consists of no music.
Obviously, Lulu differs from these earlier projects in a couple senses: 1 it consists of distinguishable musical compositions. 2 It is not a revolt against the artist’s established sound- Metallica is playing riffs that are ‘Metallica’ like (at least in the post-thrash ‘millennial’ Metallica sense), and Lou Reed’s Shatner-esque recitations of lyrics inspired by a 19th century German impressionistic play sound Lou Reed-like enough. But compared to what fans expect from a recording with the name ‘Metallica’ on the cover, it’s as radical a departure as any of these other albums.
Lulu is to be taken as a modern art project, not a ‘Metallica album.’ And while it is difficult to find two entities with less in common than heavy metal and modern art, there is a member of Metallica who clearly defies this, who represents a common link between Motorhead and MOMA: Lars Ulrich.
An art based conversation I had with Lars backstage at VH1Classic’s That Metal Show, where I had the honor to appear with him as guest guitarist on the season 8 Finale, (Full Episode Here) confirmed something I’ve long suspected: Lars Ulrich is first and foremost, an artist. Although his public persona focuses on him being the drummer/founder of the mighty metal titans, offstage, he exists as much in the art world as the metal world; an expert with a keen eye, knowledge and awareness that would rival more stereotypical connoisseurs of paint and sculpture. That Lars would be interested in a collaboration with Lou Reed is not surprising in the least. Lars made headlines for amassing a healthy collection of paintings by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, a protege of pop-art pioneer Andy Warhol. Lou Reed, as the leader of the Velvet Underground, was managed by none other than Warhol himself.
Lulu, in a strange way, represents Metallica’s own version of ‘Metal Machine Music,’ the title of which is a link in the puzzle, only enhancing the art factor of the whole project.
I predict the next Metallica record will be a big sigh of relief to fans, just as Lennon, Reed and Metheny all returned to a sound that was more familiar to their fans and Cage returned to creating actual sound. No, it won’t be the return of their ‘Master Of Puppets’ era sound that some are always clamering for, but it will be along the lines of the acceptable ‘Death Magnetic’ perhaps even stronger, as the band is building off a very healthy period in its career.
Projects like ‘Lulu’ exist to challenge the norm and can only be pulled off by mega-successful acts at the top of their genre with a heightened artistic awareness. The are enjoyable and admirable purely as phenomena to be pondered, observed and discussed rather than listened to. They leave hardcore fans horrified at worst, scratching their heads at best.
‘Two Virgins,’ ‘Metal Machine Music,’ ‘Zero Tolerance For Silence,’ ‘4:33’ and now ‘Lulu.’ Important career milestones? Absolutely. Must have recordings for hardcore collectors? Without a doubt. Worth repeating listenings? Absolutely not.
So is Lulu a success? That depends how you define it.
As a ‘Metallica album,’ especially when compared to the classic ‘Ride The Lightning’ and ‘Master Of Puppets,’ it seems to be generally agreed upon that it doesn’t belong in the same bin. The sales figures already can’t compete with the rest of the catalog. In fact, as this is being written, there is news that Lulu has slipped off the Billboard 200 after just a few weeks- unheard of for Metallica.
But when compared to the work of artists like Warhol, Shepard Fairey and others, as well as the level of the aforementioned albums by Lennon/Ono, Reed, Metheny and Cage, Lulu makes sense; a work of to be appreciated like an odd installation in an art museum, one which you stop to look at but probably wouldn’t keep in your own house, unless you have eccentric tastes. It’s modern art removed from the museum and placed out in the world via a previously unimaginable combination of elements.
Think about it: Lou Reed and the world’s biggest heavy metal band get together, bond over German expressionism, create an album that is difficult to digest and release it to the world? If that’s not art, I don’t know what is.